How to Turn Your Leafy Suburban School Districts into Defacto CMOs

February 27, 2017

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

I had the opportunity to catch up with Dr. Tom Patterson on Friday. Patterson was a crucial legislative supporter of both the Arizona charter and scholarship tax credit laws that passed in 1994 and 1997, respectively. Dr. Patterson related to me that in his first run for the state legislature in 1988, he attended a candidate forum at Arcadia High School, a Scottsdale Unified School District school to which I am zoned. At the time he was campaigning on an open-enrollment law (which came to pass in the 1990s), an idea that his opponent denounced as “crazy.”

A close look at Scottsdale today demonstrates that Dr. Patterson was crazy- crazy like a fox. In fact, without open enrollment Scottsdale Unified would be in trouble today. I came across an interesting power point presentation prepared by demographers for the Scottsdale Unified School District in 2014. Lots of interesting stuff in the document but when I came across the figure that Scottsdale Unified takes in 4,000 out of district transfers, it occurred to me that this was probably a large enough transfer population to get Scottsdale Unified to compare favorably to the state’s larger charter management organizations. Sure enough:

4,000 out of district transfer students would rank Scottsdale Unified as the 9th largest CMO in the state, if it were a CMO. Arizona law requires districts to adopt open enrollment policies, but gives district schools an free hand in deciding which students to accept.

Sadly no one collects statewide data on open enrollment these days, but my spidey-sense tells me that it is underrated here in the Cactus Patch. Based upon a report from the Arizona Auditor, Scottsdale should have a fairly acute interest in open enrollment transfers, as the Arizona Auditor General reports that the district was using 65% of facility capacity in 2012:

The higher cost was primarily caused by the District maintaining a large amount of excess school building space, which was likely not needed because many of the District’s schools operated far below their designed capacities. In fiscal year 2012, Scottsdale USD had total school building capacity of about 38,000 students but only had about 25,000 students enrolled, or in other terms, the District was using about 66 percent of its building capacity. Maintaining more building space is costly to the District because the majority of its funding is based on its number of students, not the amount of square footage it maintains. Had Scottsdale USD maintained a similar amount of school building space per student as its peer districts averaged, it could have saved approximately $3.8 million, monies that the District otherwise potentially could have spent in the classroom. Although the District closed one school campus at the end of fiscal year 2014, in light of its large amount of excess building capacity, the District should continue to review options to further reduce excess space.

Factors other than choice impact Scottsdale enrollment, including an aging population, higher home prices, etc. but choice is playing a role. The demographic report noted that while Scottsdale gained 4,000 students from open-enrollment that they had 9,000 school age children living within their district boundaries not attending Scottsdale Unified schools. Choice programs in other words interact with each other in a dynamic fashion. Many prominent figures in the parental choice movement have argued that Scottsdale kids “already have school choice” but it turns out that when you give them more meaningful school choice, you free up spots for other kids.

The report also includes an analysis of transcript requests as a method for tracking where kids are going. About half of requests came from charter schools-with BASIS and Great Hearts in the lead, another 29% came from private schools, and the remainder came from online schools.

The Arizona Republic wrote up a story about the presentation of the report to the school board, which included a question from a member of the school board as to why an online charter was the largest single recipient of transfer requests when the district had started their own online learning program. “These are kids who, essentially, most of them would be dropping out,” came the reply from an Associate Superintendent.

Two notes on this comment- an online charter was not only the largest recipient of transcript requests, another such school was the third largest single recipient. Not the best look if they were “kids who were going to drop out anyway.” Second, the possibility of negative selection bias may call for a far more careful look at the results of online charters. “Demographic twins” may or may not work out in a rough and ready fashion when we don’t suspect selection bias, but when we do have reason to suspect it..but I digress.


The overall picture in Arizona is one marked by robust accountability (losing students and money) rather than double secret probation accountability. The state turned off the A-F accountability system two years ago to revamp it in light of new tests. Word has reached my ears that the State Board recently had the opportunity to consider a formal written proposal to include student vegetable consumption in the school A-F grading formula.

No I’m not making that up. I also heard they decided not to move forward with the proposal. I’m comforted by the widespread use of the Greatschools website, which has their own ranking system and parent reviews. Overall the Cactus Patch has a vibrant bottom up accountability system (vrai pas faux) while still having to go through the motions on what appears to these eyes to be a relatively dysfunctional system of normal compliance activities amounting to…I’m not sure just what.

So it is great to have Scottsdale Unified competing in the choice mix. It makes me happier to pay my taxes than I otherwise would be. Should Arizonans want still more parental choice?






Competition and Core Knowledge-Let’s Keep an Eye on a North Phoenix Neighborhood

June 3, 2016

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

So I have been reading with interest the comment section discussion on Jay’s missed the point piece, which inspired me to follow up on a post I wrote in 2012. Your humble author took the above photograph of Shea Middle School in Arizona’s Paradise Valley School District. This was the neighborhood I used to live in, and I was zoned to send my children to this school (they were elementary age at the time). In the 2012 piece I relate circumstantial evidence that leads me to believe that the 9000 pt font banner you see in the photograph was prompted by the announcement of both a BASIS and a Great Hearts school opening in the area.

The following chart, making use of the AZ Merit results, gives a flavor of why long before the banner hung that my wife and I had already decided that we would explore other options for middle and high school.

MM Shea SM

Mercury Mine Elementary School feeds into Shea Middle School, which in turn feeds into Shadow Mountain High School. These schools are all within easy walking/biking distance from each other, with the middle and the high school being literally next door.  Mercury Mine had a larger number of open enrollment transfers attending when my children attended, which speaks well of the school’s reputation (the neighborhood had a larger number of empty nest residents so transfers were welcome.)  These schools operate in a relatively advantaged area overall, but the slippage over time from elementary to middle to high school scores is evident in both the AZ Merit and the older AIMS data. An examination of parent reviews in Great Schools failed to convince me that my lying eyes were leading me astray in examining test scores. I cast no aspersions here-I’m entirely confident that these schools have a great many dedicated people working very hard in them, but as a parent the trend you see in the chart above was gravely concerning.

So in 2012, BASIS opened a new school within walking/biking distance. What does that look like?

MM Shea SM Basis

BASIS has a dedicated band of internet detractors who complain that BASIS does this/that/and the other thing to pick and choose their students. Some of the enormous difference in scores you see here may indeed be due to factors other than great instruction and hard work by students, but as you can see there is a lot of room to give. Such arguments are ultimately moot without a random assignment study (which we lack) and the discussion is off mission. My intention in showing you this chart is to suggest why neighborhood school leaders seemed to be freaking out in the email to parents referenced in the 2012 post. Er, wouldn’t you?

Now this brings us back to Shea Middle School, which proudly and loudly adopted Core Knowledge starting in 2013.  Due to changes in the testing regime during this period, it is difficult to assess the overall direction of scores, but let’s stipulate that neither Core Knowledge nor the advent of competition proved to be a wonder cure than instantly transformed Shea Middle School overnight. That is not how the real world works after all. It could be the CK and competition will lead to incremental gains over time. Alternatively, maybe the losses to competition come to be viewed a sunk cost and the district schools fail to realize the potential of the curriculum.

Have a good summer- I’ll update this next year with new data and we’ll see how this little neighborhood experiment goes.

Disclosure: your humble author formerly served on the board of BASIS, and sends two of his three children to Great Hearts schools (although not the one mentioned in the post).

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